London Supermarket Stories

London Supermarket Stories

Marks & Spencer, the British department store chain, which also operates upscale supermarkets, has a brilliant advertising campaign around sustainability issues called Plan A. The company lays out bold commitments around climate change, waste, sustainable raw materials, partnerships in the global south, and healthy lifestyles. And why is it called Plan A? “Because there’s no plan B,” M&S says.

I spent last week in the UK, and I was surprised and encouraged by the debate that’s unfolding there about the environment and climate change. It’s seen most clearly in British food stores, which I write about in today’s Sustainability column. Shoppers are talking about everything from the future of the plastic bag to the lifestyle of chickens.

Here’s how the column begins:

LONDON (Fortune) — Walk into a London supermarket, read the label on a bag of Walker’s crisps - that’s what the British call potato chips - and you will learn that 75 grams of carbon dioxide were emitted when making the 34.5-gram package. What does that mean? I have no idea. Nor do most Brits.

But carbon labels on potato chips are just one sign of how food shopping is changing in the U.K. Increasingly, shoppers want to know where their food comes from, and whether it was produced in ways that are good for the planet, for farmers and workers, and even for animals.

Consider: Supermarket chains including giant Tesco, which is now expanding into the United States, and posh Marks & Spencer promise to buy from local farmers, to reduce their carbon footprint and promote recycling. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has provoked a national debate over the treatment of “battery chickens,” meaning chickens crammed side-by-side into cages on factory farms. The British government has asked retailers to develop “eco-labels” measuring the environmental impact of what they sell.

After spending most of my week in London, I visited family in Manchester and talked about these issues with my aunt, who just turned eighty. We quickly recognized that the direction in which the British food industry is moving now—towards more local and seasonal food, less chemical-intensive agriculture and less packaging—is in many ways a return to the past. Before and after World War II, she told me, British housewives (yes, shoppers then were mostly women) went to the butcher to get their British meats, to the grocery store for a few packaged goods and then to green grocer to pick up their fruits and vegetables, all of which they carried home on a string bag. (Plastic grocery bags were all but unknown until the 1980s.) Their families ate the foods that were in season, which meant doing without asparagus in the winter and eating root vegetables instead. Strawberries arrived in June, with Wimbledon. Somehow people survived.

You can read the rest of the column here.